Over the last three years I have met families who have fled conflicts, in Lebanon, South Sudan, Congo, the Central African Republic, Burundi and Mali. I have spent time with parents who have had to leave their children behind as they ran for their lives. I have met children who have seen their parents shot in front of them. These meetings have usually taken places in Africa or the Middle East. But now they are also taking place in Europe.
Over the last week Europe was also painfully reminded of what conflict looks like, as Paris was attacked by terrorists. Understandably, this tragedy will tempt us build higher walls and increase our suspicion towards others. It is right that we should protect ourselves from such attacks, but we must also remember that those fleeing from the Middle East are escaping the very same people who attacked Paris, Beirut and many other places.
It is perhaps worth stopping and praying about what the world needs right now before we react too fast. There is a lot of chaos, fear and need around us, and we now get to choose in what direction we take ourselves, our continent and our impact on the world. We get to ask what the world needs from us now. And we get to pray for what role the church should play.
With Christmas little more than a month away, a few things stand out for me from my time in conflict areas this year.
A few weeks ago I spoke to one Syrian mother with two small children who cried in despair as she recounted how she thought she had saved her children as they ran when their town was bombed. Now she is fearing they will die of exposure on European soil instead. She asked me why this was happening. I don’t remember my answer, but I do remember her face and the trembling of her voice. I also remember my own fury as I tried and failed to articulate a prayer that evening. Our aid was nowhere near enough. They had spent weeks travelling to Europe to find safety, only to find their children suffering from frostbite and pneumonia in a land they believed would be secure.
Europe was shocked by the picture of a young boy dead on a beach in Turkey a few months ago. I am afraid the next shock for us may well be a family frozen to death somewhere in central Europe. It’s likely to happen as we go about our Christmas shopping. But it doesn’t have to be like that, nor should it.
The Bible is littered with calls to help those in need. Jesus himself spent the beginning of His life as a refugee. The New Testament churches were famous for supporting those no one else would support. Yet our society today is at risk of building walls instead of building homes for those in need, and to do so at the same time we celebrate the birth of the very One who came to save the lost. The church in the Roman Empire stayed behind when cities were ridden with plague to care for the sick. In contrast, our western culture today puts a premium on comfort and security, and likes to avoid the hard and the scary. I shudder to think what the world would be like if the early church leaders had done that, or if Jesus had avoided those in need, or avoided his own sacrifice.
He did not avoid it. He came for those in need, and the lost, and paid a price for that. And I believe He is calling us to do the same.
The church in the west now has two opportunities.
The first is to be salt and light to the world and help save lives. Many problems in the world are highly complex; providing food, water and shelter to people is not. There are many organisations out there to support practically and financially.
Secondly, There is also a battle for the soul of Europe where we risk turning inwards and becoming increasingly scared of and distant to those from elsewhere. The UK has so far chosen to shelter only a comparatively small number of refugees and the crisis may seem more distant here and easier to ignore. But only hours away there are hundreds of thousands of refugees needing help. The church. following the command to love our neighbours, can and should counter such isolationist tendencies and in particular the mistrust of some Christian communities towards Muslim refugees, as Jesus did, by spending time with those that others would avoid.
I have recently found the Nativity play increasingly difficult to watch as I keep wondering if we miss some of the key points of the account. Jesus was born in a barn in Joseph’s hometown. This is often played out as if the hotels in the town were full. But if Joseph’s whole family is there and they are about to have a baby I would imagine that there was a choice possible there somewhere to give them real accommodation.
That choice was not made.
A baby, in this case the Son of Man, was born in a barn because no one would shelter Him, even his own family.
This is a warning to us about the nature of humanity. It is also a strong indication that the God we pray to knows what it is like to be both forgotten and deliberately ignored. He also knows what its like to be a child refugee. And his message is one of love, to God and then to our neighbour, whoever that might be. I imagine He has opinions on how we respond to children in need of our assistance, and I do not want to explain to Him why children who have survived conflict in Syria die of winter cold in Europe.
The good thing is that we can make that choice.
We can help. We can ask our government to do more. Individually and as a church we can support those organisations who are already providing food, water and shelter. And we can prevent growing mistrust between communities by reaching out to those from different countries, faiths and backgrounds.
Then maybe we can sing those carols with a good conscience.
Johan Eldebo coordinates the International Justice Forum, a group for people from different churches who work in international justice to come together for community, insight and prayer to share in that spiritual journey.
He is also a Senior Humanitarian Policy Adviser at World Vision. The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of World Vision.